Many Students Struggle with Food Insecurity. Why Is It So Hard for Them to Get the Help They Need?
Profiles in Disconnection: SNAP & College Students
By Luis Hernandez, Communications and Business Development Associate, Alluma
I hear the sounds of rustling papers in the background as I chat with my friend Sandra* (her name has been changed for this article) on the phone. She’s getting ready to make her way to school; she’s graduating from the University of California, Berkeley this year and the workload is picking up as she devotes hours a day to researching for her thesis.
While our phone calls usually consist of talking about our career ambitions and cracking jokes with one another, this conversation is different. My friend Sandra deals with a lot of the same anxieties that all college students have, but she’s also contending with something else: food insecurity.
She went back to school to further her career, but even with a job, the costs have set her back so much financially that even securing basic necessities like groceries is a regular and stressful struggle. I asked her to tell me a little more about what the process has been like to navigate school and the application process for CalFresh, California’s Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program.
For Sandra, CalFresh is a crucial support system. “When I came to Berkeley, I took out a ridiculous amount of loans, more than I did in my four years of undergrad,” she says, clearly worried about the large amount of money she will have to pay back after graduating. “I don’t have anyone contributing to my education at all,” she adds. Sandra works to support herself as a Graduate Student Researcher; her role as a reader requires that she administer tests for faculty, grade papers, and tutor undergraduate students. But despite taking out loans and working the maximum 20 hours a week that her readership allows, Sandra still feels “financially strapped” for cash.
Many college students like Sandra struggle, too often invisibly, with serious financial troubles including the inability to access food and affordable housing, especially in urban areas where rents are often high.
In a survey conducted by the Hope Center of college students from two- and four-year institutions throughout the U.S., they found that in 2019, 39% of students were food insecure in the prior 30 days and 46% of respondents were housing insecure in the previous year. The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges for college students as across the nation, college students have been losing their jobs in a struggling economy that makes it hard to earn income.
“When I found out that I could apply for money for food I was so relieved.” But learning how to apply was hard. “I remember going online and being confused about the whole process and so that kind of delayed me for a while,” she recalls.
Hilary Dockray, Senior Policy Analyst at Alluma, elaborates on the pressure students face trying to support themselves and find help. “Students are taking out huge loans just to cover tuition and fees, and are left with covering the costs of living,” she says. “And as we know, benefits and services meant to help fill those gaps, like SNAP, are often anything but easy to get and maintain.”
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In order to meet SNAP requirements, a student must work at least 20 hours a week or have a dependent child under the age of 12, according to the U.S Department of Agriculture Food and Nutrition Service, but some students may not be able to meet this criteria. This leaves college students without access to support despite having a significant need. They may be confused and not even attempt to apply because of the requirements or stigma associated with seeking help. And even when they do, they can struggle to track down the documentation necessary to not only submit an application but also recertify their benefits.
This is a situation that Sandra knows all too well. A few times, she couldn’t meet recertification requirements because she wasn’t able to find the documents, like pay stubs, before her renewal window closed.
“Since I already did it once, the second time…sorry, I mean the third time, my process was expedited and I was able to receive it [CalFresh funds] in three days,” Sandra explains, trying to remember how many times she’s had to reapply, despite having CalFresh for only a year.
“Students are taking out huge loans just to cover tuition and fees, and are left with covering the costs of living. And as we know, benefits and services meant to help fill those gaps, like SNAP, are often anything but easy to get and maintain.”
Sandra recertifies every three months, as do all able-bodied adults without dependents, meaning this time period depends on the age of the individual, their household size, and the person’s overall health.
Sandra spends a few days before her deadline gathering the necessary materials. While the majority of the documents she needs to submit are available online, she spends a lot of time checking emails and searching for them. Now, she is more prepared for the process, even having a large folder in her room that contains all the documents she has ever submitted, but this type of management still takes a toll.
She adds, “CalFresh is important because I need food, but it feels like something I can’t do right now,” when juggling her coursework and responsibilities, like working her job as a reader on campus. “It becomes extremely stressful when you get denied,” Sandra says, taking a pause. “They take it away for some reason that you don’t know why without any notice really, and then you have to do all the things over.”
How can colleges and human services agencies enhance their systems to make applying for and keeping benefits more efficient?
Many colleges and human services agencies can improve this process dramatically for students like Sandra, many of whom are navigating the public benefits system for the first time.
For a long time, Sandra was unaware of the resources that her campus provides and had to learn about CalFresh from a friend; she eventually attended an on-campus CalFresh workshop. Even though UC Berkeley has an on-campus food pantry and even offers a CalFresh clinic, where students are walked through the application process, schools can do more to make services more visible. Last year, Alluma’s Strategy and Innovation Team conducted fieldwork and discovered that a key barrier was the difficulty of finding support and resources on a college campus. There are a lot of technology tools that can be shared to help students find food pantries and apply to CalFresh and other essential programs.
Changing federal policy by allowing those receiving the Pell Grant to automatically be qualified for SNAP could be a way for students to learn more about what services are available for them. Leveraging existing data from sites that students already frequent, like the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), can also be a simple and effective way to inform more students that they are eligible for SNAP in addition to receiving their award letter.
Enrolling more students helps them access the essential services they need, but staying in those programs is also important to prevent them from losing the ability to purchase food and to prevent more work for agencies. The current burdens of recertification can be alleviated by states and local agencies by modernizing and simplifying their service delivery processes.
Tools like e-notices can notify a person when their renewal date is coming up, and list the steps for the beneficiary to follow so they hold onto their coverage. Agencies can also use telephonic or electronic signatures so renewals can be accepted over the phone or online, and use existing information the agency already has on file. This can help make things easier for people like Sandra by saving them from having to go into agency offices or fill out duplicative information. While technology is not always the answer, it can go a long way in preventing eligible people from losing their benefits and lowering administrative costs.
Having gone through it several times, Sandra would like to see the process simplified for college students.
“As the stakes increase and the need for CalFresh increases, it can really be impossible or feel impossible to get help. If the process was smoother it would be better for college students,” she says, reflecting on her most recent experience trying to reinstate her benefits.
For Sandra, having CalFresh ensures that she has time to focus more on being a student and progressing toward graduation. Most of all, it makes her feel secure because she knows she will be able to buy food.
Together colleges and human services agencies can take the burden off students like Sandra, so they won’t have to decide between schoolwork or getting support. And ultimately, that can mean more students walking across the stage at their college graduation, diploma in hand.
Luis Hernandez is an award-winning multimedia content creator with a zeal for tech and entertainment. Currently, Hernandez is a Business and Communications Associate at Alluma where he develops internal communications strategy, writes multimedia blogs, and showcases organizational accomplishments. Follow Luis on LinkedIn and Twitter.